Are Violence and Child Abuse Rising in COVID-19 Pandemic?

The dangerous game of weaponizing science for ideological and political gains.

Posted Nov 20, 2020

Kat J in Unsplash
Source: Kat J in Unsplash

In the previous blog, I reported on unreliable research about mental disorders in adults in the general population related to the COVID-19 pandemic. For children, there is a different topic worth investigating. Many individuals have warned that domestic violence (DV) and child abuse have exploded or will explode during lockdowns, putting children’s mental health at special risk.

Warnings have been loud. The United Nations called DV a “shadow pandemic” (UN Women, 2020). The Washington Post called it a “double plague” for women and children (Faiola and Herrerro, 2020). A Wikipedia page claimed DV spiked in 30 countries, based solely on anecdotes, mentioned no limitations about quality of data, and quoted the UN Secretary-General about a “horrifying global surge” (Wikipedia, 2020).

Doctors have been even louder. A British Medical Journal editorial called the alleged rise in DV and child abuse an “irreversible scarring of a generation,” but cited no studies (Green, 2020). Researchers concluded in the Journal of Clinical Nursing that we need not speculate about whether DV might rise during the pandemic; as of April 12, 2020, they were already certain, in the absence of studies, that “Domestic violence rates are rising, and they are rising fast” (Bradbury-Jones and Isham, 2020). Researchers wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine about a “pandemic within a pandemic,” based on two media anecdotes about DV and zero scientific studies (Evans et al., 2020). There are too many to list them all.

Anecdotal stories can be informative, but it needs to be clear that these stories are not science. Anecdotal “evidence” is often from a single person about a single site, often with an agenda. There are reasons that science journals insist on transparency, standardized methods of data collection, and peer review. Anecdotal reports are often unreliable and prone to exaggeration to suit the beliefs of the speakers.

A good example of the anecdote problem came from a news website called Sixth Tone, which posted an online report on March 2, 2020. The report quoted a retired policeman who founded a non-domestic violence nonprofit in Jingzhou, China. He claimed that a single police station in Jingzhou received 162 reports of DV in February compared to 47 in February of 2019. Not only that, the man somehow knew that “According to our statistics, 90 percent of the causes of violence are related to the COVID-19 epidemic” (Wanqing, 2020). What statistics? How does a retired policeman have instant access to police statistics? How does he know they were related to COVID-19? The Sixth Tone story was repeated many times by other journalists and even medical journals as the totality of evidence for increased DV in China.

Is any of this true?

What is the Research Saying?

A global survey of all 133 Child Helpline International offices worldwide asked for data on helpline calls from January through June 2020 and for the same months in 2019 for comparison. There was a 17 percent decrease in calls about violence. They also measured the severity of lockdown in each country: There was no clear association between calls about violence with the intensity of the restrictions in countries. They also reviewed reports from child protection agencies about child abuse, and found no clear evidence of a rise in calls, saying for example, “Notably, in the United States, decreased reporting to child abuse hotlines has been documented in 19 states” (Petrowski et al., 2020).

A researcher in Norway found a similar situation. Surveys were sent to all 46 battered women refuges in Norway. Fifty-six percent of the refuges reported a decreased number of calls (Øverlein, 2020). Scientific surveys from other localities are trickling in and they all support the absence of a pandemic within a pandemic. Analysis of police reports about domestic violence in Dallas, Texas did not see “any lasting increase or sustained higher levels of domestic violence” (Piquero et al., 2020). A systematic survey of German child protection agencies failed to find any increase in child maltreatment (Jentsch and Schnock, 2020). Analysis of police reports in Los Angeles showed an 8 percent decrease in reports compared to the same months in 2019 (Barboza et al., 2020).

It is also noteworthy that some researchers tried to bulletproof their claims by citing historical examples of past lockdowns during SARS, swine flu, and influenza epidemics (Peterman et al., 2020), yet there are no known studies from those lockdowns that DV or child abuse actually increased.

Some have suggested that maybe reports of domestic violence are decreased because women are trapped with their abusers during the lockdown and it is harder for the women to escape, and that maybe reports of child abuse are decreased because children are not around teachers and pediatricians who make a lot of the reports. Maybe. But many of the news stories and editorials are not saying maybe. They are saying that increased DV and child abuse are facts.

Why It Matters

There are bound to be some lockdown-related problems, but there is very little current evidence for a pandemic within a pandemic for DV or child abuse. There is very little historical evidence to support such claims.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted, again, how political agendas and science intersect in both good and bad ways. Lockdowns intersected with activist agendas that existed before the epidemic, and activists seized the moment to use lockdowns to re-energize those agendas (e.g., eliminate violence against women and children). These are well-intentioned agendas trying to protect women and children which seem to be trying to draw attention to their causes.

In the 2001 movie The Shipping News, a veteran newspaper reporter teaches a novice reporter how to write “short, punchy, dramatic headlines.” He tells the young reporter to look out over the ocean off the coast and tell him what potential headline he sees. The young reporter says, “Horizon Fills With Dark Clouds?” No, the veteran scoffs, the headline should be “Imminent Storm Threatens Village.” But what if no storm is coming?, asks the novice. Well, then you’ve got a second headline ready and waiting, “Village Spared From Deadly Storm.” It is not really about the truth. It is about highlighting only the facts which support specific beliefs.

It is a reckless game to try to weaponize science for political gain. When warnings are shouted so loudly and turn out to be wrong, listeners learn not to listen. When retractions are not published when real data arrive, listeners learn not to trust. Science and news need to be value-neutral and reliable to maintain their integrity. In my view, we seem to have lost some of that lately. 

References

Barboza GE, Schiamberg LB, Pachl L (early online 9/16/20). A spatiotemporal analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on child abuse and neglect in the city of Los Angeles, California. Child Abuse & Neglect.

Bradbury-Jones C, Isham L (online 4/12/20). The pandemic paradox: The consequences of COVID-19 on domestic violence. Journal of Clinical Nursing.

Evans ML, Lindauer M, Farrell ME (online 9/16/20). A Pandemic within a Pandemic — Intimate Partner Violence during Covid-19. New England Journal of Medicine.

Faiola A, Herrerro AV (9/6/20). For women and children around the world, a double plague: Coronavirus and domestic violence. Washington Post.

Green P (online 4/28/20). Risk to children and young people during the Covid‐19 pandemic. BMJ 369:m1669.

Jentsch B, Schnock B (online 9/15/20). Child welfare in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Emerging evidence from Germany. Child Abuse & Neglect.

Øverlein C (online 8/18/20). The COVID‐19 Pandemic and Its Impact on Children in Domestic Violence Refuges. Child Abuse Review.

Peterman A, Potts A, O’Donnell M, et al. (April 2020). Pandemics and Violence Against Women and Children. Working Paper 528 from the Center for Global Development.

Petrowski N, Cappa C, Pereira A, Mason H, Daban RA (online 9/25/20), Violence against children during COVID-19 Assessing and understanding change in use of helplines. Child Abuse & Neglect.

Piquero AR, Riddell JR, Bishopp SA, et al. (online 6/14/20). Staying Home, Staying Safe? A Short-Term Analysis of COVID-19 on Dallas Domestic Violence. American Journal of Criminal Justice.

UN Women (2020). The Shadow Pandemic: Violence against women during COVID-19. https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/in-focus-gender-equality-in-covid-19-response/violence-against-women-during-covid-19. Accessed 11/18/20.

Wanqing Z (2020 3 2). Domestic violence cases surge during COVID-19 epidemic. Sixth Tone.

Wikipedia (2020). Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on domestic violence.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_of_the_COVID-19_pandemic_on_domestic_violence. Accessed 11/15/20.